Reactivity Paused: Took a Breath and a Stand

My understanding of differentiation of self after listening to Murray Bowen and reading the materials is that each person emerges from the multi-generational family organism with a certain amount of undifferentiation (or fusion) that needs to be handled using various mechanisms such as distance, conflict, over/under-functioning, and/or projection to the next generation. The more self that one has, the less intense these mechanisms will appear given a certain level of anxiety. With that same level of anxiety, a person with less self than the previous person, the mechanisms will be more intense.

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Collective Intelligence and Differentiation of Self

Why do humans dominate the planet?  Not, as often assumed, because of individual intelligence according to science writer, Matt Ridley.  Not because we have big brains.  Having smarter, cleverer people is not what makes societies work better.  He proposes that

“Human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon.  It is by putting brains together through the division of labor — through trade and specialization — that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity and knowledge base of the species. …Human achievement is based on collective intelligence–the nodes in the human neural network are people themselves.  By each doing one thing and getting good at it, then sharing and combining the results through exchange, people become capable of doing things they do not even understand.” 

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Reflections on the 3rd International Conference on Bowen Family Systems Theory

The Lapland of northern Sweden proved to be an idyllic location for the 3rd International Conference.  Like the waters, reindeer and midnight sun intrinsic to the land, observations of differentiation of self were integral to the many excellent presentations I attended.

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Learning Bowen Theory

My first acquaintance with the thinking of Murray Bowen was through reading “On the Differentiation of Self,” the paper in which Dr. Bowen presents his theory and describes how it guided his effort toward differentiation of self in his own family. In my first couple of readings, I understood little of the theory or what Dr. Bowen was doing on those visits home, but I heard him clearly on the results. His family became calmer and more flexible. Personal communication opened up. Seriousness gave way to humor.

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The Survival and Adaptation of the African American Family Mignonette Nunn Keller, PhD Summary of Dr. Keller’s presentation at the CFC Summer Conference in 2021

“How does a slave develop a self in an oppressive dehumanizing system forcing him into a no-self position?” a question posed by Murray Bowen, MD was addressed in the conference “The Survival and Adaptation of the African American Family”, a presentation by Mignonette Nunn Keller, PhD. at the Center for Family Consultation, July 23, 2021.  Bowen’s conceptualization of chronic anxiety and “differentiation of self” traced the early years of Aaron Guice, his family experiences with two slave owners, and his relationships with his second owner’s family.  Aaron Guice was sold at approximately age 14 to his second owner.  He was able to exercise principled oriented decisions in delaying marriage and children, being able to accept both his black and white heritage and continuing to have positive relationships with both black and white family members.  From this writer’s perspective, some positive external experiences and his being a free spirit and having some distance from the emotional system he grew in enabled him to develop sufficient “self” to withstand the stresses and losses he experienced growing up.

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Process, Process, Process

You may be familiar with the old saying about the three most important things in real estate:  Location, location, location.  This means there is one most important thing in every aspect of our lives. In Bowen theory, the cornerstone concept of differentiation of self holds that pivotal position.  To deeply know oneself and work toward a more separate yet connected self is the key.  Being focused on the act of becoming more differentiated requires thinking about process.  How do you see yourself and your reactivity more clearly and objectively? And then, how do you work to respond differently when you observe high reactivity?

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Anxiety, Stress and Triangles: Pressurized Human Relationship

Dan Papero’s review of the fundamentals, such as the automatic and instinctual reactions within the emotional system, the preferential sensitivity among the family members, and the constant flow and counter flow of emotions within the system was helpful in understanding triangles.  How the forces of togetherness and individuation are always in play, how anxiety increases the pressure towards togetherness and how too much closeness results in distancing.  The mechanisms of distancing include conflict, overfunctioning/underfunctioning and projection.  They are utilized to control the emotional flow and maintain regulation. Triangles operate to maintain equilibrium.  The example of the spinning top continuing to adjust the balance of the threesome in the triangle was helpful.

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The Caste System and The Emotional System

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste:  The origins of our discontents, is a hard book.  Her words confront us with a hard truth about human behavior:  that humans are capable of imposing extreme cruelty and suffering on other humans and have done so at many points in history.  With brilliant writing and thorough research on three caste systems–American slavery and its aftermath, Nazi Germany, and the millennia-long caste system of India–she traces the forces that drive human behavior to destructive extremes.

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The Use of Force: Law Enforcement as a Reflection of Society

The use of physical force is an instinctual response to a real or perceived threat.  In a moment of fear, who has not found themselves raising a voice, or raising an arm, or seeking a way to constrain the other and protect self?  The use of force to bring conflict under control should be a last resort and applied judiciously, yet with rising emotional intensity, it easily becomes the first resort, setting in motion an escalation of conflict. 

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Bowen Theory Conferences Adapt to Pandemic Conditions

For all of its tragic impacts on humanity, the coronavirus pandemic is presenting us with an opportunity and impetus to take time out for serious thinking.  Since the time of social distancing began several weeks ago, two important Bowen theory network events have taken place:  the annual Spring Conference of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (April 3-4) and the 37th Midwest Symposium of the Center for Family Consultation (May 1).  Both were originally planned as onsite conferences but converted to online.  In so doing, the conferences became very different experiences for all involved–planners, presenters, and audience members—and much was learned in the process.  This essay offers thoughts on what was learned, particularly in the area of human behavior and human response to threat.          

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